Spotlight on think tanks: what is the picture in the UK?
We wanted to find out what the think tank landscape looked like around the world. So, in this series we’ll use the Overton data to understand how think tanks are influencing policy, one country at a time.
There are 11,175 think tanks globally, according to the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.
Think tanks can broadly be defined as an organisation that engages in research and advocacy on a particular topic. They have an important role in policymaking, and often act as the ‘knowledge brokers’ between university researchers and governments or other decision makers.
In this blog post, we’re exploring the picture in the UK.
At the time of writing there are 136, 326 documents from 228 think tank sources in the UK in the Overton database.
These cover a wide range of issues but the most frequently referenced Sustainable Development Goals are:
The think tanks most cited by UK policy makers are:
- Institute for Fiscal Studies, with 6010 policy citations
- Institute of Development Studies, with 4607 policy citations
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with 4071 policy citations
- National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) with 3620 policy citations
- Overseas Development Unit (ODI) with 3390 policy citations
Most of these are UK based (with the exception of the American NBER, who produce economics working papers and are heavily used by the Bank of England). This perhaps reflects the call for publications that recognise the political, cultural and legislative landscape of a country.
Though these think tanks are clearly well known and can be considered ‘influential’, it’s also worth bearing in mind that they are also some of the most prolific publishers. The UK think tanks producing the most publications are:
- Institute of Development Studies, with 9264 policy documents in the system
- Institute for Fiscal Studies, with 5956 policy documents in the system
- Overseas Development Unit, with 5214 policy documents in the system
Let’s take a closer look at some of our most cited think tanks.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)
The IFS is an ostensibly independent economic think tank, specialising in UK taxation and public policy. It is frequently held up as a credible and objective source of fact, and the IFS' take on a policy issue will often validate or delegitimise a position.
Publications by the IFS are referenced primarily in policy from branches of the UK government, but is also highly cited in policy from the OECD and the German think tank IZA Institute of Labour Economics.
The research referenced in IFS publications is, predictably, from experts on economic issues - the most referenced institutions in IFS works are University College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford and the NBER.
The IFS' most cited work is the 'Tax by Design: The Mirrlees Review' focused on identifying the characteristics of a good tax system for a developed economy. This is referenced in 129 other policy documents, including the Irish government's report of the Commission on Taxation and Welfare and the brilliantly named report ISA ISA Baby from the Resolution Foundation.
The IFS publication Sector shutdowns during the coronavirus crisis: which workers are most exposed? was also cited 129 times in policy documents from other sources. This paper explored who was most affected by the Covid 19 lockdowns.
The Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
The Institute of Development Studies is a research institute affiliated with the University of Sussex. The think tank - along with its associated institution - has been ranked as the 'best in the world for Development Studies' in the QS World University Rankings for the seventh year in a row. They research a broad range of issues, from social change to the environment.
Publications from the IDS are cited all over the world. The World Bank references their publications most frequently, followed by the Overseas Development Unit, the International Development Research Centre, the International Food Policy Research Institute and the OECD.
The World Bank is also the most frequently cited institution in IDS research. Their publications also frequently cite research by the University of Oxford, the University California Berkeley, the London School of Economics, and their parent institution the University of Sussex.
The most cited IDS publication is the paper Transformative social protection which argues for a reconceptualisation of the concept of social protection into something that extends to all the population and has the power to empower marginalised people and reform society. It's cited 171 times by other policy sources, including this paper from think tank the German Development Institute and this UNICEF publication.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation
This think tank is focused on social change, and has the ambitious goal of solving poverty in the UK.
As one would expect from its specific objective, policy and research documents from the Foundation are primarily cited in the UK. Various branches of the UK government and parliament (plus the devolved Welsh Government) frequently reference research from this think tank, as does the UK think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also favours UK institutions in its own research and policy work. The top five most cited universities in their publications are the London School of Economics, the University of York, the University of Glasgow, the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford.
The most cited publication by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is this report on Poverty and social exclusion in Britain, which is cited 114 times by other sources including in policy focused on combating poverty from the Government of Serbia and this report from Norwegian think tank Nova on children's living conditions.
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Notes on this analysis
There is no clearcut definition of a "think tank" – there is a lot of crossover with academia, lobbying, industry groups, quasi-government organisations and NGOs – so there may be other think tank-type bodies which have been excluded from this list. If you have thoughts on the best way of identifying and classifying think tanks, we'd love to discuss!
Policymaking is not usually a linear process and there are many ways that think tank research and policy recommendations reach decision-makers, including private meetings, committee hearings, events, as background research for policy papers or via political party channels. Many of these pathways do not show up in policy documents, so this analysis reflects just one aspect of policy influence.
Policymaking in some policy areas may lend itself to certain types of influence pathways, so there may be a bias within government policy documents towards policy areas typically shaped in public view (eg economy and health). This may mean think tanks that are influential in more closed policy areas (eg defence) may be underrepresented in this analysis.
Being cited in more policy documents does not necessarily mean a think tank has more influence. Depending on the aims of the think tank, getting their policy recommendation adopted wholesale in one government policy document might be the desired outcome, while others may prefer smaller mentions across a larger number of policy documents, signifying their status as subject area experts.
Overton is used by think tanks, NGOs and IGOs across the world to understand their reach with key policymakers and shape the conversation. Find out more.
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